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Stan Lee, Comic Fairytales, and Spirituality

I enjoy interviews with creative and artistic people, and one of the venues for this is a series called “The Directors” which appears on the Reelz Channel. Normally this series interviews film directors, but this last weekend they had a chance of pace when they interviewed comic book legend Stan Lee. The last question of the interview involved why comic books are so popular, to which Lee responded that in his view it is because they are fairytales for grown ups. He said that when we are children we enjoy fairytales, but then grow up and move beyond them. He thinks comics serve the same function as these stories, and they are so popular because they touch on various archetypes found in classic fairytales. I believe that Lee is correct, but with a few modifications. While graphic novels are becoming increasingly popular with adults, and comics are surely providing some of the best inspiration for Hollywood films, they are still largely the purvue of kids and teenagers in America, unlike in Japan where they are a popular form of adult entertainment. In addition, I’d say that comics do include archetypes, but I’d go a little further and argue that they also include myth, symbol, and folklore. On the latter element, Amanda Carson Banks and Elizabeth E. Wein have argued in an article titled “Folklore and the Comic Book: The Traditional Meets the Popular” for New Directions in Folklore 2 (January 1998) that:

“An analysis of three series published by DC Comics in the early 1990s (Swamp Thing, Sandman and Hellblazer) reveals a heavy dependence on traditional folk beliefs in the central story-lines and characterization, as well as in illustration and incidental dialogue. The writers of these series do more than merely borrow ideas from culture or one another, or employ stock motifs and themes in their narratives; they often incorporate themes from folklore and tradition wholesale and unaltered. By examining the use of traditional and contemporary folklore in these series it is possible to see not only the extent and manner to which folklore is utilized, but also how widespread certain folk vocabulary and beliefs are in the contemporary period.”

As the authors near the end of their treatment of this issue they state that, “As a genre that is at root fantasy literature, comic books are a safe and easy place for readers to explore parts of themselves and their sense of spiritualism and search for transcendence.”

Related to this is the latest issue of ReligionLink from June 4 titled “Superheroes and spirituality: the religion of the comics.” The initial paragraphs for this issue state:

From last year’s summer blockbuster, Superman Returns, to this summer’s third installment of Spider-Man, comic book heroes are bringing their pseudo-religious characters to the cinema. Religion experts and observers of pop culture say these superheroes reflect — some more overtly than others — traditional religious archetypes and values in nontraditional settings. Yet the popularity of these heroic figures endures, no matter what media they inhabit. May 25, 2007, marked 30 years since the first Star Wars movie introduced Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and company. The series and its spinoffs have generated an estimated $20 billion in revenue, a figure that is likely to increase amid the anniversary hoopla.

Why it matters
Anyone tracking the religious currents streaming through American life cannot limit that search to institutional faith. Experts largely agree that many Americans — especially young people — who shun traditional expressions of faith are attracted to religious messages and symbols, most often in popular culture. Those symbols and messages are perhaps most overt in the superhero figures who are migrating from comic books to movies and television. Some experts see in many of the explicitly American superheroes a mixture of the patriotic and religious symbols that reveal the persistence of a “civil religion” in the United States.

It would appear that comic books provide a number of opportunities for engagement and enjoyment, from entertainment to scholarly study from a variety of perspectives and disciplines, including folklore, popular culture, and religious studies.

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There are 5 Comments to "Stan Lee, Comic Fairytales, and Spirituality"

  • dwhite@northcountry.com says:

    Mr. Morehead,

    While I agree with most of what you are saying in your article, I think you are missing an important point about comics, particularly those created and overseen by Mr. Lee. The point is that it is not nearly so much an issue of exposing readers to religious symbolism or dogma as it is a straightforward moral play. Stan Lee seemed to make a decision early in his career to address moral issues that resonate with his audience, that being primarily young males. Hence the ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ theme of the early Spider-Man comics, along with the constant reminders of the evils of picking on those (supposedly) weaker than us. The Fantastic Four showed us the value of friendship, and putting the good of the group before the good of the individual. From the Hulk, we saw that although there was a savage, evil side to us all, we could overcome that side with compassion and love.

    As a die-hard fan of Marvel, and one who grew up reading virtually all of Mr. Lee’s work, I think I can truly say that his influence on my early childhood is as large or larger than any other authors of morality-based content. It was far easier for me to relate to the issues confronting Peter Parker and Ben Grimm than it was to comprehend and identify with the fables of Aesop, or even the Gospel of the New Testament.

  • John W. Morehead says:

    Mr. White,

    Thanks for stopping by and sharing your comments. I appreciate your attempt at helping with a perceived blindspot in my treatment of Lee and his comics. You are quite correct that they often function as morality plays, and this provides the greater context for the incorporation of fairytale, archetypal, and symbolic elements. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

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